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[GreenYes] Technology and Recycling's Future
In a note sent to me individually, Chris Cloutier asks "I am interested in
discussing further your response to Deborah Zeck at some point. It seems to
be that MRF's have to be optimized and improved if recycling is to succeed.
That should not happen to cover up back packaging
or other mistakes, but of the many, many MRF's I have toured, so many are so
hugely inefficient that it is mind boggling. If your supposition as
expounded to Ms. Zeck is correct, should we NOT optimize those systems or is
the intent behind the optimization important?"

Obviously in view of what he asks, I wasn't clear for many on the list. Let
me try to be more explicit at what I was trying to convey about technology
when it is stretched too far without contemplation of the confounding
effects of politics and competing economic forces.

    First,  there are different layers of possible design improvements in
MRFs.  One
base level is the most elemental form of rational organization and low tech
separators for heavy lights flats, horizontal balers, better oriented
conveyors, etc.  The second gets into more sophisticated optical systems and
into near fully automated single streams.  As to the first, go for it.  As
to the second, see the second point.

    Second, there are three ways these more expensive options have been
looked at:

        a.  Blind faith in technology that buys equipment because the
salesman is good w/o independently doing the numbers using very conservative
assumptions (in view of the fact that it is a fixed, inflexible investment).

        b.  A single minded micro-economic analysis in which a careful
independent calculation is made about how the proposed high tech component
will work in your particular operation, but that is done as if the rest of
the world, and how
it will react to the cumulative weight of all your individual decisions,
does not exist. ("Micro-economic" just means an examination of how an
investment will effect a single company by itself, as contrasted with a
macro-economic analyses that seek to place the cumulative effect of
individual decisions and the reactions by others to them into a big

        c.  A holistic view that encompasses how politics and competiting
economics forces confound the best intentions of micoeconomic analyses
because, in the real world, competing forces will react to reoptimize their
position in ways that can totally  undermine the assumptions the were used
to make the micro-economic calculation.

       What I was trying to say is most will agree that par. a is not good,
but I don't think
that stopping at par. b will save recycling either. Rather with many of the
technologies often discussed, embracing them WITHOUT MORE will wind up
killing recycling unless and until the cost of disposal is first increased
to the point where the environment is finally protected.

    Those technologies of greatest concern to me are, though there may also
be others--

        1.  Fully automated collection.
        2.  Light compaction on the collection vehicle.
        3.  Single stream processing.

    As I discussed in earlier emails, these certainly do hold a lot of
promise if done
properly.  The problem is that they can equally easily be done improperly in
order to increase throughputs, thereby driving down per unit costs.  The
downside of doing so is in massively increased residue rates.  The average
single stream MRF has 27% residues!  When tip fees are low, it is cheaper to
abuse these technologies then it is to use them properly.

    How are decent independent haulers or non-profs going to compete in this
world when the vertically integrated haulers, who are economically driven to
ramp up demand for their landfills which creates market power (see our
website for more on that), not their MRFs, can see
a easy way to beat our socks off with the same technology that we're walking
around saying is great stuff.

    That's why we have to concentrate all of our fire power are getting
landfill pricing's just like the progressive groups have
learned that until they get campaign finance laws really reformed, none of
the discrete liberal issues are going to go anywhere in Congress.

    I hope that this makes sense.  The stakes are enormous.  We are very
close to falling into a high-technology trap from which serious recycling
may never otherwise recover.


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